Category: Sympathy, Art, and Society (1/29)

In class today students worked in groups of three to draw the landscape scene on pages 92-93 of Frankenstein (see pics below).  Team 3 won the competition because they were better able to represent the way the creature defied Burke’s aesthetic categories of the beautiful, the sublime, and the ugly that are deployed in this literary passage.

Nonetheless, all these pictures are masterpieces in their own right and clearly testify to my students’ imaginative powers!

Team 1

Team 1


Team 2

Team 2


Team 3

Team 3


If you open up my copy of Frankenstein, you’ll see a fair amount of underlines and check marks, maybe the occasional star or exclamation point. But if you really want to know how I felt while reading, you’d need to look at the little faces I’ve drawn on the margins. There are happy faces, angry faces and surprised faces, but it’s no surprise that the sad, frowning, pensive faces are what dot these pages the most.

And yes, this is one of those sad-face passages.

Victor’s reaction to Justine’s execution illustrates a complete failure on his part to sympathize with his supposed loved ones. From the start, Victor focuses not on putting himself “into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected” as Edmund Burke explains sympathy in A Philosophical Enquiry, but instead in announcing “the tortures of my own heart” (Burke 41). This is somewhat understandable; Justine’s death ought to fill Victor with guilt. However, he quickly repeats the word “my” an absurd four more times: “my Elizabeth,” “my doing,” “my father’s woe” and “my thrice-accursed hands!” (Shelley 85). Egomaniac much? Nowhere does he console Elizabeth or Alphonse. Worse, he rationalizes, choosing not to share in or feel, but to “contemplate” (85) Elizabeth’s grief, driving his focus further inward.

Victor’s narration switches to speak to his family — while concentrating even more on himself. Burke writes, “there is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity […] it always touches with delight” (Burke 43) but it is this sympathy that prompts humans to positively “relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer” (43). Victor, far from comforting his heartbroken family, appears only to delight, perversely prophesizing worse things to come. He ironically claims he will be “happy beyond his hopes, if thus inexorable fate be satisfied” by Justine’s death, but only after he assures his loved ones, “Again shall you raise the funeral wail” (Shelley 85). Instead of relieving suffering, he indulges in it and even divests himself of any responsibility for the execution, pointing toward “inexorable fate” (85) instead. At one point Victor appears to demonstrate compassion like that which Burke describes, claiming he “has no thought nor sense of joy, except as it is mirrored also in (his family’s) dear countenances” (85), but the truth is in the writing. The only action verb in that final, excruciatingly long sentence is “bids you weep” (85), as Victor urges his family members to not smile, but “shed countless tears” (85). You don’t want anyone happy, do you, Victor?

I confess. I initially drew that sad face because I fell for Victor’s seemingly agonizing exclamations. It didn’t take much further examination, for me to realize that this sad face should definitely not be for Victor. Nor should it be for Elizabeth or Alphonse or Justine. It’s for the lost humanity. The total absence of sympathy.

Edmund Burke’s idea of sympathy is very applicable to Frankenstein as one of the driving forces of the novel is the creature’s desire for sympathy and understanding from someone. I chose the last passage on page 121 starting with “When night came..” and ending with “…insupportable misery” to expand on this point.

There is a huge amount of tension in this passage between the concepts of animal and man, and the ambiguity over which category the creature falls into. Words like “howling”, “wild beast” and “stand-like” make the image of him as an animal stronger. Burke says that the difference between animals and humans is that the passions of animals “are more unmixed”, and they only require a mate to be of their species and the opposite sex, whereas humans love, and search for socially pleasing qualities as well. In this the creature is like an animal as he pleads Victor to create for him a female, and gives no regard for her beauty or nature. But unlike the animals, he doesn’t feel like he belongs in the woods, which is seen in the images of “cold stars [shining] in mockery”, “bare branches” and the tension between the “hell” inside him and the “universal stillness” outside. He is “unsympathised with” even by nature, and has very human thoughts. For instance, as his pain is so close and real, it is not at all the sublime and so to alleviate some of it he wants to “spread havoc and ruin around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin”, as in watching from a distance the terror and distress that this would cause, he would touch upon the sublime, and also feel the “degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others”(Burke, Pg 42), that Burke discusses. These are entirely human tendencies.

The phrase “luxury of sensation” struck me as very interesting and odd. The “sensation” seemed to have been keeping at bay his despair, and when he had to stop it all hit him. I think this is because, as Burke says, Sense is universal and “is in all men the same, or with little difference” (Burke, Pg 13). Thus “sensation” was a luxury to the creature as it allowed him to feel as if he belonged and was the same as man, which was his deepest wish.

In the ending of this passage however, the Creature renounces this wish and declares war on all mankind. Where before he felt sympathy for humans, such as Felix, he now says that he will cease. This is because where before he wanted to be one with men, and so felt the bond of sympathy which unites all humans, here is when he declares himself separate and different. Humans didn’t think of him as one of them and so did not feel a reciprocal sympathy, and in this light he relinquishes any desire to become human and the bond of sympathy along with it. The Creature asserts himself as not a man now, as he refers to humans as a “species” separate from his own, but he has learnt too much to go back to being an animal, as he is filled with human thoughts and emotions. Thus, he is trapped somewhere in the middle without belonging to either side, he is both and neither, and this unresolved tension is what torments him throughout the rest of the novel.

Page 95: “As he said this, he led the way…he thus began his tale.”

In this passage, it is with considerable thought and convincing that Victor decides to hear the creatures tale. One would  think that what moved him was sympathy — the language of it is definitely there. Victor does not, however, ultimately act out of feeling for the creature, but out of his own rationalizations that he claims are sympathetic.

A major tension exists in this paragraph between what Victor is actually saying, his word choice, and the tone of the overall passage. “My heart was full” he says, and “compassion confirmed my resolution” (95). He supposedly feels something, may it be ever so slight, for his creation, something akin to sympathy. For a moment, the reader can imagine that Victor does feel the sympathy Edmund Burke describes in A Philosophical Enquiry: “a passion accompanied with pleasure, because it arises from love and social affection” (42). Yet, when one reads the passage, the tone of it is coldly calculating and impersonal. Even though Burke views the bond between creator and creature as one inherently possessing sympathy, by his account, Victor cannot love the monster because he does not find it beautiful. If Victor does not have any affection for the monster, how can he feel real pity, sympathy, or compassion?

Victor’s layering of compassion/sympathy language over the story is probably meant to maintain Robert Walton’s esteem. People are more likely to like people if they are benevolent. We again come up against Victor’s unreliability of narrative, a theme throughout the work. His sympathy is vague; real, true emotion is entirely missing from the passage, save Frankenstein’s dread at the upcoming tale. Victor is very aware that he is telling a story. When he sprinkles in sympathetic words, bits of emotional description, he seems to expect that the reader (or listener) will focus on those, rather than passages such as “I weighed the various arguments that he had used” (95), which are completely at odds with the emotion-driven compassion he attempts to portray.

Page 102: “They were not entirely happy…which were first enigmatic.”

One aspect of Burke’s theory of sympathy is focused on the sympathy one feels in regard to the distress of others. He states that we feel a delight, which in this case is the absence of pain, in the tragedy of others. This “delight” is what prompts us to take interest and aid our fellows, instead of fearing the same fate and abandoning them to their own devices. Of course, we are unaware of such perverse motives with Burke stating, “…and the pain we feel, prompts us to relieve ourselves in relieving those who suffer; and all this antecedent to any reasoning, by an instinct that works us to its own purpose, without any concurrence.” This inborn instinct however, is very much absent in the Creature. Although he does experience feelings of sympathy for the impoervished family, he is at a loss as to explain the feeling. He attempts to rationalise and investigate the source of his sympathy, something Burke claims is an instinct and something people do not engage in. We see the similarities to a human in his ability to experience these emotions, yet his awkwardness and wonder in the experience alienate him further from us.

The passage selected focuses on the scene in which the monster is first made aware of the unhappiness that the DeLacey family are experiencing. He is surprised by his empathy for them, with their intense emotions deeply resonating with him. Yet, this sympathy does not come naturally to him,as he tries to justify these strange, alien feelings. We see this through the repetition of his questioning, “What did their tears imply? Did they really express pain? I was at first unable to solve these questions…” This quote also reveals a theme of rational versus emotion. The creature, lacking in true comprehension for human suffering, is frustrated with his fruitless attempts  to answer these questions. His sympathy is tainted with the sense of logic and justification, a mix which Burke argues, is not characteristic of human sympathy. Additionally, the rapid questions create a sense of tension for the audience, his distress in the unresolved matter almost palpable. This tension lends to detracting further from the creature’s sincerity in his empathy, making it seem more like an inquisitive reaction rather than true sympathy.

This passage highlights the creatures ability to feel a pale imitation of sympathy ( judged by Burke). The creature seems to react to the emotions he sees rather than experience a true empathy for the DeLaceys. His aggressive repeated questioning lends a strained quality to his concern for the DeLaceys, which in turn undermines his genuine concern for them.

Sympathy and Sight

Passage: pg. 120, paragraph starting with, “The old man paused…”

The passage I’ve selected is during the conversation in which the creature is pleading to the old man De Lacey and trying to persuade him to lend him a hand. This passage is particularly important in highlighting sympathy, or the lack thereof, that exists in Frankenstein.

The creature has passionately begged old man De Lacey to be a friend to him. De Lacey, who is blind, evaluates the Creature’s arguments and, after careful consideration, agrees to help the Creature. Noticeably, when he makes his decision, there are multiple words that indicate his hesitation.

“The old man paused

“I perhaps may be of use”

“There is something in your words”

After evaluating what the Creature is asking, De Lacey comes to the conclusion that, “it will afford me true pleasure to be in any way serviceable to a human creature.” He reaches this conclusion out of his sympathy for a fellow man, in that he is able to understand the situation presented and feel emotion towards another member of his species. Unfortunately for the Creature, he does not fall in the realm of human beings and thus, when it is determined that he is not a human creature, he no longer garners the sympathy that blind De Lacey initially offered.

Interestingly enough, in Burke’s writings on sympathy, he makes continual note of how mankind naturally possesses sympathy for other men. If you take Burke’s writing to be absolutely literal, it becomes clear that there exists no sympathy for beings of another species, such as the Creature. And again and again in Frankenstein, we see that a continual lack of sympathy towards the Creature, consistent with Burke’s writings.

Sympathy in Frankenstein

For next Thursday (1/29), write a blog post that applies Edmund Burke’s theory of sympathy to ONE particular passage in Frankenstein.  Please take the time to practice your close reading skills.  File your post under the category “Sympathy, Art, and Society” and don’t forget to create tags.

Students could choose to write a post in response to a previous student post under this week’s category.


To help you with this post, here are 5 close reading guidelines worth considering:

1. Note key words or phrases that repeat in that passage.

2. Look for irony, paradox, ambiguity, and tension.

3. Note those words or phrases that seem odd or out-of-place.

4. Note any important symbols, motifs, and themes.

5.  Is there anything missing from the text that should be there?

This week in class three groups of students collaboratively drew three landscape drawings of vol. 1, chapter 10 of Frankenstein, where Victor and the creature encounter each other for the first time (pp. 92-93).  Drawing #1 won the contest, because of their sublime depiction of mist and the surrounding shadowy mountains.  Nonetheless, drawing #3 did a better job of emphasizing the creature’s sublime obscurity and horror of the unknown.  All the groups struggled to capture the “unearthly ugliness” of the creature, without making him appear comical or too distinct and clear (a quality of beauty).  We concluded that the creature upsets the aesthetic categories of the sublime, the beautiful, and the ugly, as theorized by Edmund Burke.

I’ll be glad to get some comments from those who have any suggestions for how to visualize the creature in this novel.  Of course, film depictions of the creature try to do this, but they have not always been faithful to the novel.

                                                                                                                                                                       group drawing #2:

drawing #2 

                                                                                                                                                           group drawing #3:

208 photo[3]

                                                                                                                                         group drawing #1: (the winning picture)

208 photo[2]

Like man at birth, the creature at his creation is a tabula rasa, enveloped in darkness and fueled by primal instincts until, inch by inch, he begins discovering the world around him, in both its human and its natural forms. It is then, at his most infantile stage of life and discovery, that the creature’s humanity is at its rawest and most profound, bubbling and taking shape beneath his unnatural shell.

Soon after the creature takes up residence next to a family living in a cottage, he forms a connection to them not by idolizing the beauty of their lives, but by witnessing the humble sadness that surfaces from time to time:

“They were not entirely happy. The young man and his companion often went apart, and appeared to weep. I saw no cause for their unhappiness; but I was deeply affected by it. If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched. Yet why were these gentle beings unhappy? They possessed a delightful house (for such it was in my eyes) and every luxury; they had a fire to warm them when chill, and delicious viands when hungry; they were dressed in excellent clothes; and, still more, they enjoyed one another’s company and speech, interchanging each day looks of affection and kindness. What did their tears imply? Did they really express pain? I was at first unable to solve these questions; but perpetual attention and time explained to me many appearances which were at first enigmatic.” (102)

The creature seems confused by this dimension of pain in human existence, one that he had never before considered. His  sympathy for the family is an especially thought-provoking one due to its primitive and naïve nature. He feels it despite his lack of understanding; he is unable to see “[any] cause for their unhappiness”, yet he is “deeply affected by it”. This is a turning point for the creature: Before stumbling upon their humble abode, his only interactions with mankind were marred by the human ability to inflict pain. And, at the beginning of his silent existence next to the family, he saw only peace, beauty, and music. This realization, then, that pain can find its way even into the hearts of those whom he fears and revers, gives him pleasure as much as it confuses and disturbs him. “If such lovely creatures were miserable,” he says, “it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched.” Thus, their pain is his momentary salvation: he recognizes his connection to humankind, and is no longer so miserably alone. This passage thus reflects Edmund Burke’s theory in A Philosophical Enquiry that “…we have a degree of delight…in the real misfortunes and pains of others…if [sympathy] was simply painful, we would shun with the greatest care all persons and places that would excite such a passion.” (42-43)

A source of tension arises, of course, when we consider that he is, at this point, the only one who acknowledges his own connection to the family and to society at large. While at first, sympathy empowers him as a being in the sphere of human existence, the element of human interaction is missing, and the heightened sense of awareness of his own suffering is left to fester and deepen in the face of rejection by society. If we look carefully at the role of nature in the creature’s narrative, it would seem that the text foreshadows this tension from the beginning. To both Victor and the creature, nature always seemed to represent solitude, a separation from society; but while Victor sought refuge in this solitude, the creature feared it. Throughout his days spent alone in the mountains, his only source of joy was the light – the moon, the sun, the fire – that warmed him and saved him from the oblivion of night. In a particularly powerful moment, the creature discovers fire for the first time: “In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” (97) Similarly, the joy he feels basking in the glow of human company and connecting to human beings seems at first to assuage his despair, but as he inches closer and closer to a society that will not accept him, his sense of fulfillment is paired to an inevitable sense of loss and pain when he is left in solitude once more, an eternal solitude that contradicts, as Burke puts it, “the purposes of our being…”(40). Eventually, the sense of something missing overpowers and poisons the victory of something gained, serving only to augment his isolation and rage as the novel goes on.  Perhaps, then, he would have been better off in the darkness.

According to Edmund Burke, sympathy consisted of being “put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected” (41). It involves the sympathizer in the affected person’s affairs/misfortunes that resonates so deeply within the sympathizer that he/she feels as though he/she can relate to some extent. Incidents of tragedy, such as a car accident, typically evoke this emotion because humans, Burke argues, find “delight… in the real misfortunes and pains of others” (42), and according to Burke, delight and sympathy go hand-in-hand. An attractive force towards tragedy and misfortune are apparent in how humans “[do] not… shun such objects, if on the contrary [induce] us to approach them [and] make us dwell upon them” (42). Since humans are naturally drawn to things which internally evoke a sense of delight or pleasure, it is these emotions that are at the root of our attraction to tragedy and misfortune. Burke rationalizes this seeming contradiction by stating how terror, an emotion associated with experiencing tragedy and misfortune at some level, “is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close, and pity is a passion accompanied with pleasure, because it arises from love and social affection” (42). Imagine watching a car accident unfold ahead of you on the road, and you manage to avoid it all. As you drive past, it is natural to check it out and absorb the whole situation. You likely feel a sense of delight that it was not you who was involved in such tragedy and misfortune, yet you feel pity for the people involved in the accident and hope that they are all right. This is where you sympathize with the affected people, where, as previously stated, you put yourself into the place of the affected man. Here is where the ties between being drawn to tragedy and misfortune and developing a sense of sympathy are formed.

In Frankenstein, a particular passage stood out with respect to Burke’s theory of sympathy: line 7 on page 94 through line 23 on page 95 (the very end of Chapter 10). Here, the creature, actively trying to get his creator, Frankenstein, to see him in a friendlier light, tries to make it clear to his creator that he “was benevolent [and his] soul glowed with love and humanity” (94). To humanize himself to Frankenstein– a hard thing to do, what with his grotesque appearance and Frankenstein’s firmly ingrained convictions regarding the creature’s behavior and intentions– he wants to emphasize the goodness of his soul. Of course, he also makes it a point to describe how humans have corrupted his positive spirit due to the way they “spurn and hate” (94) him. The hate is so universal that he feels as though the “bleak skies… are kinder to [him] than [Frankenstein’s] fellow-beings” (94). Here he essentially states that something inanimate like the sky (and a bleak one, at that) has a greater capacity of compassion than humans, which speaks of how harshly he is being treated. Such descriptions of his hardships are to evoke the sympathy of Frankenstein, who while delighted at the creature’s misery based on such combative statements as: “Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light!” (94), does grudgingly capitulate by the end: “I did not answer him, but… I weighed the various arguments that he had used, and determined to at least listen to his tale… partly urged by curiosity, and compassion” (95). He gave in based on the creature’s heart-wrenching, tragic tale, which fostered the curiosity and compassion that drove him to at least give the creature a shot at explaining himself further– akin to someone seeing a car accident on the side of the road and, while delighted that it is not him/her, still slows down to check it out due to curiosity and compassion.